Eclipsing Cancer

Man Prays for Cancer Victim

Almost fifteen million Americans have cancer and over fifteen million Americans are alcoholics according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Cancer is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Alcoholism is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Lung cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer worldwide. Smoking cigarettes, a personal choice, is the most common cause of lung cancer. Drinking alcohol, a personal choice, is a requirement to become an alcoholic. Many forms of cancer are treatable. Alcoholism is treatable, too.

 

There are many parallels between cancer and alcoholism. So why do we treat these two diseases so differently?

 

Every week in my church, worshipers ask us to pray for family and friends who have been diagnosed with cancer. I watch as eyes drop, shoulders droop and heads shake slowly at the insidious nature of this relentless and tragic disease. Our church has a meals committee that springs into action to coordinate a rotation of dinner deliveries for families that are dealing with cancer treatments. There are offers to pick up kids from school and drive them to soccer practice. There are offers to mow lawns and care for pets. Tears are shed and prayers are prayed. There are lots of big, heartfelt, squeezy hugs. This is spirituality in action, and it is beautiful to see.

 

And yet, I can recall only one time in the past decade when a member of my church asked us to pray for an alcoholic friend. The church congregant said, “My friend has fallen off the wagon. He is causing lots of problems for his family.” Eyes dropped, shoulders drooped and heads shook – but not out of sorrow for the tragedy that had stricken the alcoholic. Rather, a sense of this alcoholic man’s failure to perform the basic functions of husband and father left our congregation with a sense of disapproval for his misconduct. The alcoholic’s family was the victim, but he was the evildoer. No meals were offered. No hugs were shared. The prayers were for the alcoholic to stop ruining his life and the lives of those around him.

 

If you have cancer, you are a victim. If you have alcoholism, you are defective.

 

About six months into my sobriety, after a ten-year battle with alcoholism, my father told me he was very proud of me for quitting drinking. His remarks were sincere and loving. I know that my drinking had caused my parents stress and worry because of the effects it was having on my marriage, and for the potential damage it could have done to my children. To drive his point home – I’m sure in an effort to prevent me from “falling off the wagon” – my dad looked me in the eyes and said sternly, “You have a drinking problem.” Then he took the last sip of his beer and gave me a hug.

 

You have a drinking problem. That shameful accusation overwhelmed the love I felt from my dad at that moment. I didn’t have a problem. I had a brain-warping, depression-causing, debilitating disease. A deeply imbedded splinter is a problem. An unidentified rash is a problem. Alcoholism is a disease caused by a genetic flaw combined with lifestyle choices, which are the exact same causes for most cancers.

 

Alcoholism is a disease of shame. The afflicted are considered to have a personal defect – a lack of willpower. For many years, the mere fact that I was addicted to a highly addictive substance filled me with shame. It made me feel like a weak man who lied and deceived to protect the secret of my predilection. I will hide in shame no longer.

 

Don’t misunderstand my point. I am ashamed of my actions as an active alcoholic. I take accountability for my behavior and have apologized earnestly for my transgressions. However, I have shed the shame of contracting the disease of alcoholism. I had a disease that affects slightly more people than cancer. That is not my fault. Now I feel no shame from my diagnosis.

 

I have spent my life immersed in an environment that celebrates the glories of alcohol. My father drank everyday of my childhood. My high school friends and I experimented with the same social lubricant we watched our parents enjoy. In college, alcohol became the center of my fraternity universe. After college, I got a job in the steel industry which is known for a heavy drinking culture. In reading the stories of other alcoholics, I have learned that most professions and industries have a heavy drinking culture. Writers and artists drink to unleash their creativity, doctors and lawyers drink to deal with the stress, and the news media and law enforcers drink to create a bond with their sources.

 

Then our culture vilifies and shames those among us who fall victim to the very substance we spend a lifetime consuming in order to celebrate, lubricate and deal with life.

 

Substances that cause cancer are called carcinogens. Our society spends billions of dollars to remediate, legislate and educate carcinogens out of our lives.

 

Then our society spends billions of dollars on advertising and legislative lobbying to convince us our lives are incomplete without the alcoholic’s equivalent of a carcinogen – alcohol.

 

I hate cancer. It is said that cancer touches everyone, and I am no exception. Two of my grandparents died of cancer, my father has been treated for cancer, I have a former co-worker who was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor when we were in our thirties, and I have countless neighbors and acquaintances who have battled cancer. Nothing would bring me more joy than if our society reaches our universally strived-for goal of the eradication of cancer.

 

But I would love for us to eradicate alcoholism as well. Treatments exist with varying success rates. What works for one alcoholic is often different from the cure for another. Just like cancers can come out of remission, alcoholics can relapse and have to start the battle all over again.

 

For all of their similarities – from number of people afflicted to death and destruction left in their wake – there is one major difference between cancer and alcoholism. That difference is found in the attitude of you and me and everyone around us.

 

Cancer victims are treated with meals and prayers and hugs and offers to help. Alcoholics are sent away to secluded infirmaries or church basements to drink coffee from Styrofoam cups and confess their sins to the other cretins of the underworld. When cancer returns, it is said to come out of remission. When an alcoholic relapses, he is said to have fallen off the wagon.

 

The barriers to a cure for cancer are money and research and time. The barriers to a cure for alcoholism are attitude and misunderstanding and shame. Removing any of these barriers requires Herculean societal effort. In the case of cancer, our society is unified in our resolve to make such an effort. In the case of alcoholism, our society is too in love with alcohol to remove the barriers to a cure. Thus our society itself is the barrier to a cure for alcoholism.

 

I hope we keep fighting cancer. I hope we keep caring for the victims among us.

 

I hope we start to look on alcoholics as victims of a life-ravaging disease. I hope we drag alcoholism out of the shadows and have full-throated conversations about society’s culpability instead of whispers about shame and lack of willpower.

 

For starters, maybe hug an alcoholic and ask how you can help. It should be easy to find one of us. There are slightly more of us than victims of the disease that touches all of our lives.

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10 Comments
  • Reply
    Ainley Doyle-Jewell
    February 6, 2018 at 7:02 am

    Matt, you are 100% right about this! I remember a safety presentation at one of the companies I worked for in corporate America. The speaker was a recovering alcoholic and talked about how society sees the alcoholic as a demon. He put up a picture from the cover of a well known magazine with a human depicted as a monster talking about alcoholism. I remember him saying that the photo wasn’t him. How alcoholism skipped two generations in his family before it touched him. How his family and friends kept trying to save him. His low point was when he was living in a crack house. His sister found him and instead of taking him home like so many times before told him if he wanted to die then there was nothing anyone could do for him. That moment changed his life and he started fighting to live.

    I have often said that if I had three wishes one would be that there is NO ADDICTION of any kind. I watched first hand what the disease does to loved ones. My mother died at 47 and my brother has been in and out of the hospital and continues to drink. If he lives to his next birthday, he will be 49.

    I know that the attitude of society needs to change. There is a lot of shame around it because people for the most part believe that it is a choice. It is a disease and needs to be treated as such.

    I commend you on being open and honest. Keep up your recovery!! The next time we are together I am fine with making hot cocoa and kicking your butt at euchre!!

    Ainley

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      February 6, 2018 at 7:11 am

      I am so thankful for you comment and your friendship. Except…I want to be your partner in euchre. You’re the only one who doesn’t get mad at me for making stupid decisions.

  • Reply
    Mike Young
    February 6, 2018 at 7:15 am

    Matt, I see the correlation to our phone conversation on Saturday. The public perception of alcoholics is negative. The perception of cancer victims is sympathetic, “What can I do?”

    Cancer is in the same aisle as heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Alcoholism is in that other aisle, at the back of the store with mental illness. Another group that has a negative stigma is the one that encompasses certain syndromes like retardation, Mongolism and others. People are hesitant to address these situations out of fear or lack of understanding. They may not be under the same umbrella of negativity, but certainly are in the “I don’t know how to react or what to say” category.

  • Reply
    Andy Neis
    February 6, 2018 at 9:03 am

    Interesting correlation Mr. Salis. I would not say that alcohol was the center of our fraternity universe. There was also IU Basketball. 🙂 Never the less, I do agree with the fact that alcoholism carries that “stigma” that other diseases do not. Same goes for those that are addicted to other drugs. At the end of the day, the reason for this stigma is that there is usually no money in caring for/curing/supporting the alcoholic as there is for treating a cancer patient, or another person afflicted with some disease. Sure there is some, but not in the same ballpark. Never the less, I agree with your other commentor about wishing there was “no addiction of any kind”, but the reality is is too far from that want. Never the less, well written and thought provoking.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      February 6, 2018 at 6:43 pm

      You make a really, really important point, Andy, about money. The financial burden of alcoholism on our society is actually really large, but it pales in comparison to the amount of money the brewers and distillers and wine bottlers stand to make by maximizing their sales. I am a capitalist, so I understand the profit goal of these companies, but it is a huge factor.

  • Reply
    Cheri Miller
    February 6, 2018 at 11:30 am

    I’m in for the hot chocolate and the euchre!! and I want Sheri for my partner. Dancing with the Devil and this post are the ones that have really touched me, in fact, shoved me down. As a Mom of an alcoholic young adult, you described so many of the emotions I had trying to communicate with my daughter that I didn’t understand. “The Dance”, as you say. Hearing it from you helped me really see where she was coming from, when she couldn’t explain it herself. And validating my reactions our situation, as well. Thank you for that.

    She, and you, are on a long road. Thankfully you are both headed in the same direction but if either of you step off, I will be there with hugs, a cup of coffee and some, oh yeah, bread! Now I am more confident to look you in the eyes with understanding, not shame or embarrassment, and ask you both “how can I help you get back up there “. You are worth it. Keep preaching it brother!!

    Cheri

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      February 6, 2018 at 6:47 pm

      I hope to tell a story with which other alcoholics can resonate. The idea that hearing my story can help the mother of an alcoholic gain some understanding is really, really powerful to me. That makes me feel good. Thanks for sharing that, Cheri!

  • Reply
    Natasha Drew
    February 10, 2018 at 6:02 am

    Matt, I so enjoy reading your messages/stories/truth. It is helpful to me on SO many levels. I am always glad to see a new message in my “in” box and can’t wait to read what will come next.

    I am the daughter of an alcoholic. I am the sister of two alcoholic sisters, one in recovery and one very much struggling. I am an alcoholic, sober and not completely unashamed.

    This message that you shared was VERY powerful to me. Some of the first people that “reached” out to me when I was far from my best were at church. It seemed like it was done out of care, but then really it was to just get me out of the way. That was a terrible feeling and still something that I have struggled with as I sit on Sundays in that church, praying for help and healing for those in various situations and ailments, but neglecting some that may be really needing that same out pour of support and care.

    However, I then see it from another place, the place of a daughter and a sister who has been lied to, manipulated, put down, abandoned, forgotten all in the name of alcohol. It was not until I found myself in my own dark journey that I could be more empathetic. Alcoholics hurt so many people around them and maybe sometimes that is why it is difficult for others to really see us and be able to care on the same level as someone with a more “acceptable” disease.

    I too am glad for what my dances with alcoholism have brought to my life now, because it gives me strength, perspective, kindness, joy and appreciation. Thank you so much for sharing and continuing to share.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      February 10, 2018 at 8:16 pm

      A more “acceptable” disease – that gave me chills. I am so glad for your comment and your participation in this conversation. Your experience with alcoholism from so many angles is powerful. Your ability to see it from another place – from the position of being lied to and hurt really drives home the point that this is a misunderstood disease that needs a full throated conversation in the worst way. Not only can we hope and pray to ease the shame of the addict, but also to ease the pain and anger of the loved one. Thank you so much.

  • Reply
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    June 27, 2018 at 4:41 am

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